The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by Daily Mail Australia online on 25 November 2020 headed “Student artist sparks fury by saying war crimes report ‘shows Australia’s character’ and arguing mental health helplines shouldn’t be displayed for struggling veterans”.
The article reported that “a non-binary queer youth worker whose parents are Afghan refugees, wrote a scathing article for university-funded literary magazine Meanjin. [The student’s] comments referred to the Brereton report into alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan that was made public last week.” The article also included several photographs of the student attributed to the student’s Instagram account.
In response to a complaint, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3); and to avoid causing or contributing to substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The complainant, who was not the subject of the article, raised concerns that the repeated, prominent references to the student’s sexual orientation and gender identity were not relevant to the article written for the university literary magazine and were therefore not in the public interest to report. The complaint also said these references, together with the photographs included in the article, were salacious and contribute to substantial prejudice against persons of diverse gender or sexuality.
In response, the publication said the article does not say or imply that the student has no right to comment or have an opinion on the alleged war crimes in Afghanistan because they are non-binary and queer. The publication said that the article as a whole is focused on the student’s comments made about the alleged war crimes. The publication also said that it ‘reached out’ to the student for comment after it became aware the student had shared the article on social media. It said that although the student did not accept an offer for comment, it noted that the messages exchange were friendly and no concerns were expressed by the student with the article’s content. The publication noted that the student had the opportunity to raise any concerns about the reference to their gender or sexuality in the article and they chose not to comment. In this context, the publication questioned if the student was offended by the article’s content. Nonetheless, the publication said that in order to remedy the complaint, it amended the online article by removing the words “non-binary queer” and two photographs of the student.
The Council notes that General Principle 3 requires publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance. The Council accepts that the student identifies as non-binary and queer and acknowledges the publication’s comments that the student raised no concerns with the article in this respect. The Council considers, although prominently identifying the student as non-binary and queer could lead some readers to conclude that the views of the student should be criticised on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics, on balance the publication took reasonable steps to ensure the presentation of factual material in the article was reasonably fair and balanced. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication complied with General Principle 3.
The Council notes that given the student’s gender identity and sexuality were not reported as being a relevant factor for their views expressed in the article, prominently identifying the student as non-binary and queer, could lead some readers to conclude that the views of the student should be criticised on the basis of irrelevant, personal characteristics and could contribute to substantial prejudice to others who also identify as either non-binary and/or queer. The Council considers that in prominently referring to the student’s sexual orientation and gender identity, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice and that there was not sufficient public interest justifying doing so. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the article breached General Principle 6.
The Council welcomes the publication’s subsequent amendments to the article, which included the removal of two photographs of the student, and the deletion of all references to the student’s gender identity and sexuality from the article. However, it emphasises that publications are obliged to take reasonable steps comply with its Standards of Practice at the time of publication. In this context, the Council has consistently stated that publications should exercise great care not to place unwarranted emphasis on characteristics of individuals such as race, religion, nationality, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
- Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”